Engagement in a time of Quiet Quitting

A colleague of mine has undertaken research that suggests that ‘quiet quitting’ – the post-pandemic phenomena where employees hunker down to recover from the months of malaise that had affected their work motivation – is more a reflection of poor management than anything else (Zenger and Folkman, HBR, Aug 2022).

Two items in the research were:

  1. “My manager is good at balancing getting results with concern for others’ needs”
  2. “My work environment is a place where people want to go the extra mile”

These two items, along with others such as, “I would recommend this organisation as a great place to work”, are common in an index designed to measure employee engagement.

This article is designed to highlight a few of the consistent findings in engagement research in New Zealand, observed across several studies conducted over the last 18 months. When combined with trends noted in the global study conducted by Gallup (Gallup Global Report 2023), it gives a snapshot of employee engagement as it exists in New Zealand post-Covid.

Three observations have stood out

  1. The pandemic years have had an impact on how employees think about and identify with their work.
  2. Job satisfaction and employee engagement are two different measures of employee motivation that need to be considered differently.
  3. Jobs that have high levels of engagement due to buy-in to organisational purpose run a greater chance of adding to employee stress.

How the pandemic has re-shaped employee engagement

According to a Korn Ferry study, just 17% of workers said their job or occupation was very important to their identity. This is down seven percentage points from what it was just seven years ago.

Employees’ feelings of low motivation for the work itself should come as no surprise given the number of behavioural changes employees were asked to make to reduce the spread of the virus but has perhaps, come as a bit of a shock for some more tenured managers who came of age at a time when who you worked for and what you did was key to your sense of value and identity.

Job satisfaction and employee engagement are not the same thing

Depending on the items included in the year-on-year index, engagement may represent job satisfaction, belief in the organisation’s purpose, willingness to use discretionary effort, likelihood of recommending the organisation to others, or one’s tendency to think about quitting.

To appreciate the difference between job satisfaction and engagement, consider this hypothetical example:

When encountering an organisational barrier to progress, a group that is satisfied with its employer will approach the obstacle by calling a meeting to talk about what to do about it, while a group that is highly engaged in its work will bash through the barrier of their own volition, pausing only to inform others.

When we measure satisfaction, we are often measuring things that are what we would term ‘dissatisfiers’ or ‘demotivators’ – things that are potentially frustrating like pay, benefits and recognition. But when we measure engagement, we are looking at things that make work motivating – things like autonomy, learning new things, and connection to others.

The link between buy-in to organisational purpose and employee stress

Identifying and buying into the organisation’s purpose or mission has been shown to be a key driver of engagement. We often see this in public service, healthcare, and education – where employees will stay in a job not because of the pay, but because they place a high importance on helping others.

What we’ve seen in recent engagement studies is that a strong belief in the organisation’s purpose may contribute to high levels of stress for some employees, eg if an employee works for an employer who provides important services to the community and their ability to help solve a problem is hampered for some reason, the level of stress experienced by the employee’s inability to deliver on the organisation’s Purpose can affect their sense of worth and belief in themselves.

This potentially contributes to the phenomena we have seen in the post-pandemic global studies of employee engagement by Gallup (Global Workforce 2023) where almost half (47%) of employees reported that they experience daily levels of stress at work. Experiencing sustained levels of stress potentially contribute to one of two things:

  1. Some will look for another job, as was noted by Gallup who observed that 43% of people in New Zealand are actively seeking a new job or
  2. A shift in mindset to ‘unplug’ from the personal investment and extra effort they would normally put into their work.

Three things you can expect to find in your engagement results

Across half a dozen engagement surveys we’ve been involved with over the last few years, there are three things we’ve seen again and again.

  1. Senior leadership is usually the most engaged.
    Executive teams have a lot of control over their work environments and have direct input into decision-making. It should not be surprising that they are often the most engaged.
  2. People rarely think performance problems are dealt with effectively.
    Perhaps because performance management is often ‘done’ behind closed doors, it may well be that team members do not know what has occurred to deal with another’s poor performance or unacceptable behaviour – they only know when these behaviours continue unabated.
  3. Collaboration across teams is a common area in need of improvement. 
    While within-team collaboration may be high, the same cannot be said for how groups work together across the organisation. This short-coming contributes to role conflict, feelings of inadequate service delivery, and perceived loss of control – all the factors contributing to higher levels of employee engagement.

Three strategies for responding to lower than expected engagement results

  1. Action is king.
    No action on survey results leads to increased levels of cynicism about the value of contributing. When an invitation to provide feedback comes from the CEO, it can have a positive impact on willingness to respond, but more than the invitation to participate, are the efforts to improve since the last time staff were surveyed. 
  2. Close the loop on the feedback cycle.
    At a minimum, it is important to communicate about key insights from the survey – what you’re good at, what you need to work on, and what you don’t understand. It’s even better if your leadership team communicates about an area of focus for improvement for the entire organisation, and an area of focus for each team – that the team has identified.
  3. Focus on improving the involvement of management.
    Gallup reports that 70% of employee engagement is tied to the actions and behaviours of one’s manager. The number one thing a manager can do is to conduct regular one-to-ones with each of their staff. This is a time (however short) to listen to concerns employees have about:
    - the expectations of their role and how they are performing
    - what they might do to develop further
    - how they are feeling about workload day-to-day.

As importantly, it’s an opportunity for the manager to offer a personal word of thanks for something specific the employee has done.

Dr Michelle Shields has worked as an OD consultant with ODI in leadership development for over ten years. If you would like some help with customised employee engagement surveys, feedback and reporting services, contact Nicky on 021 133 1201 or info@odi.org.nz.

I'm trying to keep in mind how I work with others and how they respond to me. I'm trying to use my strengths to improve my performance.

I'm spending more time discussing issues with the team to facilitate a better outcome (given that we all have a vested interest in reaching the best outcome).

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